The tingle diners feel while eating foods containing Szechuan peppercorn is equivalent to being lightly tapped on the lips 50 times per second, a new study finds.

Szechuan peppercorn is unique among all other ingredients in producing the sensation. The study, published in the latest issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reveals how information sent to the brain via chemicals can equal information going to the brain via actual touch.

In the future, the discovery could lead to breakthroughs for paralyzed individuals, people with certain chronic pain conditions and gourmets seeking the ultimate "mouth explosion" of taste and flavor.

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"We knew from studies in animals that the active ingredient in Szechuan pepper selectively activates the 'light touch' (nerve) fibers," lead author Nobuhiro Hagura told Discovery News. "This made us interested in whether this unusual way of activating light touch fibers actually produces a conscious sensation of touch."

Hagura, a researcher at University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and colleagues Harry Barber and Patrick Haggard analyzed how 28 participants reacted when Szechuan pepper, ethanol (alcohol), water, and then a vibrator -- similar to an electronic massager or sex toy -- was applied to their lower lips. The subjects wore noise-canceling headphones, so they could not hear the buzz of the vibrator.

A few of the participants thought they felt a tingle when alcohol and water were applied, but nearly all believed that the Szechuan peppercorn-produced tingle was equivalent to that of the vibrator. Further investigation concluded that the pepper tingle equaled 50 light taps per second.

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Szechuan peppercorn goes into the food record book of ingredients that send information to the brain that is comparable to actual touch. Menthol is another such ingredient, producing a cooling sensation akin to touching ice or something else that is cold. Natural oils found in cloves and oregano can impart warming and numbing sensations. Mustard oil can induce pain, as can too much chile.

That familiar chile burn, however, likely benefited early humans.

Danise Coon, a senior research specialist at New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute, told Discovery News that chiles were probably first cultivated for medicinal purposes.

"Even today," Coon said. "Capsaicin (from chiles) is added to arthritis creams. It produces a heat/pain response in the brain that can be even bigger than the individual's arthritis or muscle soreness."

Szechuan peppercorn sends information to the brain that is comparable to actual touch.avlxyz, Flickr

Hagura said Szechuan pepper is different. It's more about tingle than heat.

"The active component in chiles, which is capsaicin, activates the pain-related fibers, which will induce pain and a burning sensation," Hagura said. "Szechuan pepper more dominantly activates the touch-related fibers, with much less activation of the pain-related ones."

The active component of this Asian pepper is sanshool. Like capsaicin, it could have medical applications, since tingles aren’t always tied to pleasure.

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"Tingling sensations occur in many chronic pain conditions, but remain poorly understood," Hagura said. "We hope that laboratory studies of the tingling sensations caused by sanshool could help to clarify the brain processes underlying these sensations, and how they are related to pain."

Scientists are also looking more at what constitutes touch, in hopes of restoring this sense in individuals suffering from paralysis. It could be that only minimal select activation of particular nerve fibers would be sufficient for the person to feel again.

Hagura and other researchers are also investigating how touch sensations might improve dining experiences. He suspects that the pepper-caused tingle helps to boost flavor, causing the brain to pay more attention to other ingredients present in the dish.